By Sweeny Murti
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Brian Cashman and Darek Braunecker had their first face-to-face conversation of the Winter Meetings Monday. Neither party would say exactly what they discussed regarding Cliff Lee, the premier free agent pitcher on the market. But it’s probably a good guess that the Yankees keep reiterating their position and interest. Numerous people have told me that the Yankees will not be outbid. But the final decision rests with Lee, who is deer hunting somewhere in Arkansas at the time when he is the big game being hunted at these meetings.

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Lee is likely to command at least $23 million per season over 5 or even 6 years. I have been told that the Yankees aren’t budgeting for both Lee and Andy Pettitte, so if they land Lee then Pettitte’s salary slot grows a lot smaller. That’s not unlike two years ago when he played for a base of $5.5 million with incentives after the Yanks committed big dollars to CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But I’ve been told this time Pettitte’s number would have to be even smaller if Lee is already in fold.

This brings us back to the question of whether Pettitte wants to pitch at all. When the season ended in Texas in not-as-late-as-the-Yankees-hoped-October, Pettitte was actually leaning towards retirement more strongly than in the past and said that to Cashman:

Cashman went on to say that it was the first time ever in this yearly drama that Pettitte has ever told him directly he was leaning towards retirement. But Cashman also said that wasn’t an official announcement of any kind and that he wouldn’t be surprised if Pettitte decided to play again in 2011. One Pettitte confidant told me that he honestly has no clue what Pettitte wants to do next year.

Regardless, the Yankees have to move forward on Lee. And if it means moving on without Pettitte when that time comes, so be it. Lee will be asked to anchor that staff along with Sabathia for the at least the next five years. Now we just have to see if he really wants to come here.

Rangers’ manager Ron Washington is hoping Lee is back pitching for him next season. While he personally hasn’t spoken to Lee since the season ended (leaving that duty to GM Jon Daniels, owner Chuck Greenberg, and, of course, the legendary Nolan Ryan), Washington was asked what impressions led him to believe that Lee enjoyed his time in Texas. Washington responded, “His leadership, his work ethic, the way he influences his other teammates. That was enough right there.”

Meanwhile, there is said to be a third serious team in the bidding for Cliff Lee and I was told it might be the Phillies, who traded Lee last winter in a deal that landed them Roy Halladay. That’s an interesting proposition considering they just let Jayson Werth go and save money there by replacing him with rookie Dominic Brown.

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I still doubt anyone puts a better deal on the table than the Yankees. Perhaps this moves quickly now that all these face-to-face meetings have started.

*Cashman said he spoke to Kerry Wood’s agent. He has interest in bringing him back, but clearly has a limit on what he’ll spend for that setup role without overpaying to keep Wood. “I won’t compete with closer money,” Cashman said.

*Cashman said outfield depth is an area he could improve the team. That’s probably why there are rumors they’ve spoken about free agent Bill Hall.

*The Yankees would like to bring Alfredo Aceves back next year on a minor league contract. Aceves was non-tendered last week due to a combination of his back injuries last season and the most recent bicycle accident that resulted in a broken collarbone.

*The idea of a “budget” for the Yankees seems laughable to most observers. After all, the Yankees always overspend to get their guys, right? That was the way it was done in the George Steinbrenner Era, but not as easily accomplished in the Hal Steinbrenner Era. Cashman said that his budget number is not as flexible under Hal and “unfortunately, sometimes people don’t hear that, the most important ones—the ones you’re negotiating with…until they find out it’s too late.”

*Speaking of George Steinbrenner, this was Cashman’s reaction to the news that The Boss did not get elected to Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee on Monday: “He’s going to the Hall of Fame. He’s already in the Hall as far as I’m concerned. He’s a Hall of Famer, they just haven’t made it official yet. I think everybody knows the impact he’s had on this game.”

As for Pat Gillick, the newest Hall of Famer, Cashman said, “He’s someone I think that anybody in this game would look up to.”

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Sweeny Murti